What do you get when you cross an engineer with an astrophysicist?

Charles Oldham.

When an engineer and an astrophysicist come together then interesting things can happen, says Charles Oldham. 

What do you get when you cross an engineer with an astrophysicist? It’s not a joke or a riddle. It’s the question that all businesses working in the infrastructure sector should be asking themselves.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, public spending on UK infrastructure has been less than countries like France, Canada, Switzerland and the US since the 1980s and when we combine this with today’s increased demand on our transport networks, it’s clear that the right asset management strategy has never been more important. A blend of skills is now needed to meet the enormous challenges our infrastructure is facing.   

Everyone’s talking about data

Data is the hot topic of the industry right now. Almost everyone who works for or with an asset owner will be talking about using data to make smart decisions, but what does this really mean? This will differ from business to business but for us, at Amey, it’s about really understanding the assets we manage, using cutting-edge technology to harvest data that matters and then having some of the brightest talent interpret what the data is telling us and translating it into action. 

For instance, working with London Underground, we’ve used real-time data to predict equipment failure in sufficient time to deploy a maintenance team and pre-empt down time. This technology, developed jointly by an engineer and an astrophysicist, is being deployed in Europe’s biggest data centre and busiest airport where up-time is crucial.   

Is data more than a phase?

There’s always a risk when something new comes to market, that not everyone will get on board – that some might dismiss it as a fad and carry on doing what they did before hoping that it will all blow over. We see data differently and we’re making some bold moves to really embed this change into the way we do business. One of the things we’re doing is to build the biggest infrastructure team dedicated to data, technology and analytics in the UK, thereby cementing our commitment to making data more than a trend.

The new multidisciplinary team of infrastructure analysts is made up of a growing team of almost 100 remarkable individuals with a huge range of skills and experience including backgrounds in engineering, history, neuroscience, architecture and economics to name a few. 

With over a dozen PhDs and 16 languages between them, they are definitely an intelligent bunch but it’s their combined knowledge and experience that will enable us to find out things we never expected about the assets we look after and really make a difference to the work that we do – and that’s what you get when you cross an engineer with an astrophysicist.

Charles Oldham is strategic consulting and technology director at Amey.


Having been in this realm for the last 3 years I agree data interpretation is a key skill practicing Engineers need to develop. I would extend this,using your question, from not just terrestial sourced data but also consider satellite data. I have engaged lately with the satellite applications Catapult and have been amazed at the availability of data and analytical skills. There are vast amounts of information available that can be used to optimise our infrastructure provision, yet as an industry we are largely oblivious to it. So I suggest as engineering companies we should hug an astrophysicist - just not Brian Cox at the moment as he's still on tour (saw him recently, fascinating stuff).